Rodgers making fast progression to elite QB
by Charles Robinson
GREEN BAY, Wis. – On Sunday morning, an AFC personnel executive was sitting in front of a television, fast-forwarding through replays of that week’s preseason NFL games. Unlike most NFL fans, he skimmed the first quarters, flitting past starting units in favor of scribbling notes on reserves likely to be cut in the coming weeks.
He had been sailing along until he saw Aaron Rodgers.
Five years earlier, the executive had taken a trip to see Rodgers in person, when the Green Bay Packers quarterback was putting together his pièce de résistance as a junior at California-Berkeley. He came away moderately impressed, but his franchise would end up going another way, watching as Rodgers slipped to the 24th pick in the 2005 NFL draft. More than four years later, he found himself eyeing Rodgers again in rapt attention.
“[Green Bay’s] game against Cleveland was the only one that I saw most of the first quarter,” he said. “You can see how far he has come right away. His decisiveness and the way he goes through his [progressions]. I don’t want to overstate it, because he was a first-round pick. But he’s become a pretty special player.”
“I think he might be one of the two or three best quarterbacks under 30, and there are some good ones in that group,” the executive said. “I’d take him before [Jay] Cutler, who went to a Pro Bowl last year. Give him another season and I might even take him before Eli [Manning]. And that’s a 100-million-dollar guy with a [Super Bowl] ring – good company.”
That’s a rapid ascent for a player who is only heading into his second starting campaign. However, Rodgers has wasted no time refining his game and defining his image, something that might be even more impressive considering it comes in the NFL cradle of Green Bay. What was once a fiefdom lorded over solely by his predecessor, Brett Favre, Rodgers has finally gained the embrace of the community and fan base. That might only make this preseason even sweeter, with Favre’s moniker dangerously close to becoming “He Who Shall Not Be Named If He Plays In Minnesota.”
But just how close is Rodgers to entering the elite conversation? After all, it’s a sizeable leap going from one superb individual season (4,038 passing yards and 32 total touchdowns), to being mentioned with the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees.
“I think he’s an elite quarterback right now,” said Packers cornerback Al Harris. “He can make every single throw. He can put it on a line. He’s got touch. His decision making is good. He’s quick. He goes through his progressions really quickly. I think he’s very underrated by the people in the league and the so-called experts. Once he wins a Super Bowl, I guess that’s maybe what changes that perception.”
Still, for those who have watched Rodgers closely during the last four years, there is no denying the significant transformation.
“Look at his body. He didn’t look like that three years ago,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “His body fat is way down. He’s a much more conditioned athlete. He’s much stronger. His ball has more velocity. … He’s a lot more athletic than I realized coming out of Cal.”
Indeed, after a series of injuries early in his career, Rodgers has reconstructed his physique through rigorous offseason training. This has been aimed at replicating what “elite” quarterbacks do: play 16 games, not wear down late in seasons and be the most dependable cornerstone on the roster.
But the transformation runs deeper. Arguably as recent as two years ago, Rodgers was still languishing under a perception that had dogged him since the 2005 draft, when he was supposedly neck and neck with Alex Smith for the right to be the No. 1 overall pick.
Midway through his junior season at Cal, he seemed to be the odds-on favorite in many NFL quarters. But Smith’s rise and a litany of questions about Rodgers’ mechanics and pedigree (some executives were already wary of Jeff Tedford quarterbacks) began to create cracks in an otherwise superb résumé. It didn’t help that negative stories began to leak out about Rodgers coming off as arrogant or cocky in some interview sessions. Even McCarthy noted the perception while he was serving as an offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers and helping to hash out the Smith vs. Rodgers debate.
In spite of seeing what he now calls “maybe the best workout I’ve seen live,” McCarthy said the mental makeup of Rodgers and Smith became one of the overriding factors in the 49ers’ decision making.
“That was a concern for both of them – which one of these guys can handle being a No. 1 pick in the NFL draft?” McCarthy said. “There was a lot of conversation about that. … [Former 49ers coach] Mike Nolan and I, we got into a conversation and he says to me, ‘OK, Rodgers is not a western [Pennsylvania] kid. He’s a northern California kid. I know you can’t relate to that.’ We had a lot of conversations about that. But you know, the arm and talent was always there.”
Looking back, those might be the perceptions Rodgers regrets most, and they planted seeds in a media persona that can now seem at times to be overly cautious. His interviews can be laden with boundaries, clichés, buzzwords and phrases like “I don’t want that to be perceived as arrogant” or “I don’t want that to be seen as cocky.” These are the buffers borne of a negative draft experience and three years of trying to say all the right things while sitting behind Favre.
“That [draft] was a time in my life where I felt like I wasn’t at times being who I really was,” Rodgers says now. “I think I was always a humble guy who came from a humble background and worked hard for what I got. Then you get to the draft process and you’ve got to sell yourself as the best player that has ever walked around. That was a little different for me. And then, at the same time, a few of my poor attempts at humor [regarding Favre] have come off as arrogant. I learned you just have to watch what you’re saying sometimes.”
And yet, his talent and standing have seemingly outgrown his deference. Now it’s only his record that needs to catch up. With Green Bay’s move to a more aggressive 3-4 defense, the Packers appear ready to become a more balanced team that can rival the best from the NFC South and NFC East – the conference’s two power divisions. Because while Rodgers may have arrived emotionally, physically and statistically, he has retained a keen awareness that gaudy numbers and arm strength aren’t the only traits that qualify him for the league’s “elite” fraternity.
“Honestly, that stuff is mostly media driven,” he said. “It’s funny to me that most media people wouldn’t mention a guy like Ben Roethlisberger as an elite quarterback. Ben has won two Super Bowls, right? I know he’s laughing all the way to the trophy case and all the way to the bank.”